France's highest distinction, the Legion of Honor, an award created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, was presented Thursday to World War II Army veteran George "Bud" Hougas of Marseilles.
According to the letter from French Ambassador Francois Delattre, Hougas' appointment as a Chevalier — a knight — of the Legion of Honor was "a sign of France's infinite gratitude and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the United States' decisive role in the liberation of our county during World War II ... The French people will never forget your courage and your devotion to the great cause of freedom."
The presentation took place at the evening meeting of Marseilles Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5506. Jack Leininger, VFW commander anda Vietnam veteran, pinned the medal of the "Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur" to the white windbreaker Hougas wore while some 50 members of the VFW and American Legion, as well as other guests, applauded with enthusiasm.
"This is a beautiful medal and it's an honor to put it on you," said Leininger.
"Just don't stick me," Hougas responded with a soft laugh.
Medals are nothing new to Hougas, who was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart during his Army service.
Born and raised in Marseilles, Hougas was drafted in September 1942. After training at Camp Grant, near Rockford, he was sent to Camp Bowie, Texas, where he became a member of the newly-forming 745th Tank Battalion, which would be attached to the famous 1st Infantry Division.
The unit sailed to Scotland aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth, a luxury liner turned troop transport. After more training, the 745th arriving in France at Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 18, 1944.
The first French people Hougas met were farmers.
"The people were very friendly," Hougas told The Times. "They had big apple orchards and big barrels full of cider. Our guys would fill their canteens with that cider."
Soon Hougas' unit commenced its business.
"We didn't actually do a lot of real fighting, it was more like we were pushing the Germans out of France," he said.
At first he drove a half-track, a vehicle with wheels in the front and Caterpillar tracks in the back. Later he served as a gunner in the unit's assault platoon that fought in Sherman tanks with a 105-millimeter howitzer as their gun.
Although Hougas saw many dead enemy soldiers, the first live ones he encountered were surrendering.
"In some woods about a half a mile across a field there were white flags flying. So we drove across the field and rounded up 110 prisoners and we put them in front of the half track and marched them back to the highway."
Hougas traveled with his unit through northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and central Europe campaigns.
When the war ended in Europe, he was in Swodau, Czechoslovakia.
Hougas was discharged with the rank of corporal and returned to Marseilles.
Thursday evening, Hougas said he appreciated the medal, but his thoughts dwelled with his wartime comrades.
"This isn't an individual honor," Hougas said with just the slightest quaver in his voice. "It took a unit, and my platoon buddies, I attribute this medal to them."
From the letter to George Hougas from Graham Paul, the French consul general in Chicago:
"Through this award the French government pays tribute to the soldiers who did so much for France and Western Europe. More than 65 years ago you gave your youth to France and the French people. Many of your fellow soldiers did not return, but they remain in our hearts.
"Thanks to the courage of these soldiers, to our American Friends and Allies, France has been living in peace for the past six decades. They saved us and we will never forget. I want you to know that for us, the French People, they are heroes. Gratitude and remembrance are forever in our souls...
"The Legion of Honor is the highest honor that France can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for France."